The sky beckons to me.
Some days I can just feel the salty tang of rainwater in my mouth and the hair whipping in my face. It would be the freedom I have never known.
But most days, the reality of my confined life is obvious.
My eyes sting with unshed tears and the longing of what could have been. The turmoil of emotions inside threatens to spill over the dam that I have spent so long strengthening. I screw my eyes shut and will myself to keep calm – no one can ever know.
Sighing, I turn back to the endless hours of needlework that lay in front of me, my face a stony mask.
Someday I will soar.
But today, I will be the composed queen. Calm, collected, blank, cold. Perfect, like the queen I am supposed to be.
A thud at the window startles me out of my quiet contemplation. I look over in time to see a flash of blue fall from the sky.
With perfect precision, I make my way over to the bright window and peer downwards to where a tiny, frail bird lies. It curls up on my bed of flowers, looking helpless.
I stare at it for a second, and imagine myself flying like it was before it fell. A sudden urge to keep the bird surprises me. Perfect queen, I remind myself. I tighten my lips fractionally, trying to maintain my severe, cold look as I turn away from the windowpane and glide back to my sitting room.
In, out, weave, pull. I just can’t seem to get the bird out of my head – the glint of the outside seems to call me, beckoning me to look to see if it was still there. I shouldn’t care so much. My subjects need me to be perfect.
My advisors assure me that all is well. They tell me that my subjects need a strong ruler. I don’t know. All I know is that I have to do what’s right and I’m sure my advisors are right. They’re always right.
In the corner of my mind, the bright flash of blue scares me. The bird again. I lick my lips. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what is wrong with me. My composure always slips and I can’t keep still. I need normality. I need coolness.
“Fernando!” I cry, sitting tightly on my fancy gold chair. I feel like a shaky shed, on the brink of collapse.
A few moments of silence pass and gently the door creaks open. He slips through the door like a panther, as slick as always. “Yes?” His tone is smooth and reassuring. Immediately I relax, knowing that Fernando, my lead advisor, will fix me. Fernando licks his lips, a quick darting motion.
I shift my head, trying to hide the pain on my face with my dark curtain of hair. “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” I whisper to the ground. Fernando’s face contorts in fury, but the expression leaves so quickly I’m not sure if I imagined it.
“My dear. Of course you can. The people love you.” He raises his eyebrows at me in my pathetic state. I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I want to tell him. I can be who you need me to be. Just give me a minute. But I bite my tongue and keep my words inside. I hunch my shoulders in, feeling the weight of so many expectations on my back. Fernando gives a triumphant smile, mistaking my pain for modesty.
“That will be all.” I stride over to my balcony, letting him know he was dismissed. After a few tense seconds, I feel the door close after him. I breathe out through my nose, feeling like I had just failed a test.
I look around me, seeing nobody next to me. Even though I spent most of my hours surrounded by people, I always felt alone. What would it take to have a companion to share my troubles with? No one in this whole damned world knew how I felt.
Sound breaks out at once, magnified in the silent room.
The sweet, lilted chirping of the tiny bird, the flutter of its wings about to move.
My eyes fly open. “No.” I breathe. Dropping my poise, I dart to the window. The bird looks up at the sky with its black beady eyes. “Oh no you don’t.” I can’t let this bird, this insignificant little bird; get all I’ve ever wanted.
The wings flutter, preparing to leave. “Don’t leave me.” The words barely make it past my pursed lips. The weight of the entire day crashes into me, threatening to break my bones. Brashly, I reach out the window, closing my palm around its warm body.
It’s wings thrash against my cool palm. I gaze at it huddled in my palm, smiling as I do. “You’re going to stay with me forever,” I whisper into my closed fist.
The warmth in my hand spreads to the core of my body. I felt cold all the time. Finally, I feel human, with flaws and greed in my heart. Perfection is a jealous mistress. I had felt an abyss inside me so deep, so dark I couldn’t see within. Now I can.
It’s full. The abyss is an abyss no more. Instead, it’s filled with hope of a less lonely future. No more huddling in my room by myself, no more wishing, just wishing, I had a friend. But hope is a fickle thing. “It can make you or it can break you,” I whisper, repeating Fernando’s words.
Peeking around my shoulder, I unceremoniously stuff the bird into my closet. For some reason, I just want to keep this to myself. Every single day, with people labeling me and judging me, I feel like I have no privacy.
I gently shut the closet door, holding my ear against the cool wood. I feel wrong, like I’m doing something bad, but it’s the best I’ve felt in a while. And I know why.
It’s because I have a friend.
I have a friend that can’t judge me and place ridiculous expectations on my shoulders. The pressure of all the people around me, the sniggers when I do something different and unexpected. I can’t take the need to be perfect all the time.
Feelings are clamped down inside of me and I realize that I need to confide in someone. On the bleakest days you have to keep your eyes onward and upward, and on the saddest days you have to leave them open to let them cry. To let them dry. To give them a chance to wash out the pain, to see fresh and clear once again. There is no use in keeping your thoughts constricted and held down.
I know that it is irrational, thinking a bird can be a real friend, but deep down I know it can be real. I’m holding on to this hope like a lifeline. A lifeline that can haul me out of the hole I’ve dug for myself – the need for perfection.
Then, suddenly, I swing the door open to see the bird again. The bird bursts out like a bullet, speeding around inside my room. It’s so beautiful it takes my breath away. I can’t even begin to imagine what this bird has seen. I close my eyes and try to remember a world beyond these walls that I know so well.
It’s the world that this bird knew. It’s the place where this bird flew and lived its life.
“It’s the place where it belonged,” I realize with a start. “I can’t do this.” The bird shouldn’t be locked up. I can’t make such a free thing suffer through the life I know. I, of all people, should know. I should know how terrible it is to be robbed of the freedom to live.
“Spread your wings and fly, little bird,” capturing it again in my hands. I give it one last hard look, trying to remember every detail.
I steal a furtive glance out the door, my fingers tapping a wild staccato against the feathers of the bird. I’ve never done this before. I’ve never left the safety of the big brick walls that greeted me when I opened my eyes for the first time.
But the bundle of blue in my hands emits courage and warmth, spreading to the very core of my body. I dash outside the door, and find myself out in the biting cold air.
The wind whips and snaps at my clothes, and I feel like a blur that melts into the background and disappears. I hold the bird up high and watch its wings start to flutter. Part of me knows it was wrong to imprison the bird in the first place, and that part of me rejoices.
But a voice in my head knows that the world will be a bleaker, drabber place without its bright feathers and wild song. Still I push the bird into the sky and watch it fly away.
“Fly,” I whisper to the sky. “Fly so they can never touch you. Fly until you’re a smudge in the sky.” The bird soars into the dark sky, and I can barely make out its faint figure as it disappears forever.
I stood there watching the bird fade away, my heart beating out the words I couldn’t say. Good-bye, good-bye.
I imagine the bird raising a single wing tip at me in farewell, and my heart nearly bursts from longing to join it.
The sky beckons to me.
By Claire Lu,
13 years old, Shanghai American School, Pudong Campus